The more reading groups I visit, the more it becomes clear what British readers want – what they really really want: SYMPATHETIC characters. Villains are no longer accepted, unless they are sympathetic villains, of course. Jonathan Franzen's latest book was ripped apart in front of my eyes by a fierce group of cotton-haired ladies the other day. Why? Because there's not a single sympathetic character in it. I tried to say that I had only heard good things about Jonathan Franzen, but it was clear that they all loathed the book.
Since my own novel Bestseller – which should be back from the printer any time now – is set in the world of publishing, there's plenty of nasty operators in it. Some people find the two heroes of the novel (the writer and the publisher) sympathetic, others don't. Still, I was amazed how much readers care about these characters, even the minor ones, how much they get involved with them, as if they were real. They told me things about them I didn't know myself, suggested alternative endings, made smart comments, even found a typo in the proofs!
Although publishing and writing is ultimately a very subjective business, I think reading groups are very important tool and can be used to great advantage, just like private screenings for film-makers.